Reza Aslan on his new groundbreaking anthology, the failure to build bridges between the West and Middle East, how poets can help—and the internet can’t.
The day before the 2010 midterm elections, I sat down with Reza Aslan at his home in Los Angeles to discuss poetry, politics, and what comes next. In the most literal sense, “next” for Aslan is, in large part, centered around the publication of the groundbreaking anthology, Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. As controversial as it is revelatory, the anthology marks a new phase in the life of the scholar and artist who, perhaps unenviably, is one of the most recognizable commentators on the modern Middle East (a term that Aslan is quick to point out is a Western invention). Through his appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, not to mention mainstream news outlets (after we spoke he was on his way to record an interview with Australia’s Insight news program), Aslan has become something of a celebrity. As I was reading Aslan’s books to prepare for this interview, I was stopped no less than five times by people who can only be described as fans. Most of these people had read his books, but all knew him from television. As we spoke, the subject of social media came up repeatedly, both in terms of the implications it’s had on his own career and, on a deeper level, how notions of borders and identity are shifting as the demarcations between local and global are increasingly blurred. I wondered what possibilities and challenges these issues offered Aslan in his new role as an anthologist.
Aslan describes Tablet and Pen as a “pivot” in his career’s mission to “build bridges between peoples of the West and the Middle East,” and while that is true, it’s equally important to note that the book can also be seen as an entirely new way of envisioning the anthology form. As opposed to the usual compendium of poems and stories whose sheer critical mass is meant to signify the historical importance of the anthology’s subject, Aslan has created a book that functions more like a novel. I took his directive in the introduction and read the anthology from beginning to end. It was, as promised, a revelation. In this work, we see the history of the Middle East unfolding as a wide-ranging, passionate, sometimes discordant conversation. I was consistently struck by the interiority of the voices and how rarely, in these days when the “Middle East” is often the lead story in the news, we are given any sense of the intimate and varied intellectual and emotional life of its people. The anthologist’s job is about creating borders, be they historical, formal, chronological, etc. As an editor, Aslan makes a double music as he pushes against the notion of border and statehood imposed by the West while using the historical reality of partition and colonialism to bring forward the very specific ideas of exile and isolation that recur in almost all of the poems and stories in this book.
Much has been made since the release of Tablet and Pen about Aslan’s decision not to include works written in Hebrew. Aslan speaks to his decision in this interview, but it seems to me it is just as useful to think of the omission in terms of what we as readers expect from an anthology and how Aslan (in numerous ways) subverts that notion. This may also be part of the new world of thought and practice that Aslan is creating for himself and the people willing to take the journey with him. As we ended our conversation, Aslan spoke of his next book, a biography of Jesus that doesn’t merely speak about its subject, but attempts to redefine what it is to write a biography. In each of these endeavors Aslan seems to be posing the challenging question: In an increasingly borderless world, how does one locate oneself and one’s history? How might a literary anthology serve to help readers see how we are implicated in the historical narrative that unfolds through the telling of these stories?
—Gaby Calvocoressi for Guernica
Guernica: I was on the beach in Santa Barbara, reading No god but God and this older man comes up to me, stops me in my reading and says: “Reza Aslan, he’s amazing!” And I was like…
Reza Aslan: …well, that’s good…
Guernica: Right, and I was like “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Reza Aslan is amazing.” He was like “You know, I didn’t know anything about this stuff until my son gave me Reza Aslan’s book because he had seen him on The Daily Show.”
Reza Aslan: Uh huh.
Guernica: It’s very interesting to me in terms of this project, of the anthology, because it talks about a world in which the borders have become really, really transparent.
Reza Aslan: Well, I think this weekend [with its Rally to Restore Sanity] really proved how the most credible name in news is a comedy show.
Reza Aslan: And the way that the media went after Jon Stewart for even daring to do this. And the ridiculously successful way in which it came across, essentially proving everybody wrong. There was a little bit of a media schadenfreude involved in it, you know? It’s like they wanted him to fail because he’s made it so that young people especially cannot take their news seriously anymore. You can’t watch CNN anymore and actually take it seriously because you’ve been able to see through the looking glass because of Jon Stewart. So it is amazing the way that he’s given this platform to people—like myself—to talk about very serious things, but to talk about them with a little bit of a wink and a smile and to get young people, and people like this gentleman who would never be interested in this kind of thing, to suddenly be interested in it. So thank God for Jon Stewart.
I’ve spent the last ten years trying to build bridges between the peoples and cultures of the West and of the Middle East, but it’s hard not to feel like a failure.
Guernica: I was listening to the same guy talking to his son earlier, and my first impression of him, because he was actually talking about religious matters, was that he was Born Again. And so when he came up to me and he said “Reza Aslan”…
Reza Aslan: You thought, “Uh oh…”
Guernica: I was like: “Now I’m going to have to have an argument.” I thought it was very telling and very interesting that he was able to have this whole discussion about you…He’s also an evangelical Christian… And I just thought, this is fascinating to me.
Reza Aslan: I’m really grateful for that. You know a lot of people have said about this book, “You can’t get anyone interested in American poetry. How are you going to get them interested in Middle Eastern poetry?” And it’s true… But at the same time I think part of the reason I decided to do the project was I thought: “Well, I’ve crafted for myself a small platform here, and there are people who kind of listen to what I have to say, and so if I can use that in some way to introduce people to this completely forgotten literature, this amazing, robust, beautiful, eclectic part of global literature that so much defines this region for almost everybody else except for most English speakers, then that’s actually more than I can do through writing a book about Islam, or about global politics.”
I truly do believe that art is the universal language. I’ve spent the last ten years trying to build bridges between the peoples and cultures of the West and of the Middle East, trying to educate Americans about Islam and about Middle Eastern cultures. Yet anti-Muslim sentiment is even higher today than it was after 9/11. So, it’s hard not to feel like a failure.
So with BoomGen Studios [a film production company] and with my new focus on art and literature, I’ve recognized that minds are changed, perceptions are re-framed, not through knowledge, not through information, but through relationships—through stories. And that’s where the arts come in. You need the arts—literature, music, film—as a universal language that allows people to see beyond the walls that separate us. To stop thinking of each other as different religions, or different cultures, or different ethnicities, or nationalities, and start thinking of each other as human beings. As people with the same aspirations, and the same dreams, the same conflicts and the same issues. It’s only through that recognition of same-ness that you really do change people’s minds.
Guernica: I’m interested in you talking a little bit about the nuts and bolts of putting Tablet and Pen together, but also starting with your definition of what an anthology is.
Reza Aslan: There are two sides to this question. On the one side there is just the aesthetic issue about anthologies, which is that they are not meant to be read from the beginning to the end; they’re meant to be tasted, right? Especially when you’re doing an anthology from Norton, you immediately think of those giant onionskin books we all had to read when we were freshmen. So from the very beginning what I wanted was an anthology that people would buy on the front table at Barnes & Noble, not what you’re forced to buy for school.
Guernica: It’s gorgeous.
Reza Aslan: They did a great job of making sure it would be a beautiful book. It’s not the kind of book that you would expect to buy from a professor; it’s the kind of book that you would expect to buy at a bookstore. So that was very important to me, to write an anthology that you would start at the beginning and read through, and you do get a sense that there is an overarching narrative to it. But in order to create that, obviously my own political views about the region have to come in. First and foremost, the problem with the Middle East: What is it? The term “Middle East” is a Western invention. It’s not, as Edward Said very famously said when talking about the Orient, a geographic designation. It’s a cultural designation. It’s an ethnic and religious designation. It’s meant to define what is not the West. That’s what the Middle East has always represented. It’s not Europe, and it’s not the Far East. In truth there’s very little that this panoply of cultures have in common with each other. So when I began thinking about what the Middle East meant, I decided it would include South Asia and Turkey, even though many South Asians and Turks would say “We’re not really part of the Middle East.”
But I did so not because they shared any ethnic, or linguistic, or cultural, or national, or even religious similarities. I did so because in my readings of all these works, I discovered a shared sense of historical consciousness that had infiltrated the writings of the twentieth century. That also meant that I would not include Hebrew in the collection because until the nineteen fifties the locus of Hebrew literature was in Europe, not in the Middle East. After the fifties, the writing that was coming out of the Middle East in Hebrew, by which I mean solely out of Israel, was very much focused on what has been called Jewish historical destiny. So it didn’t deal with the same themes and topics that all the other writers from the region wrote about: anti-colonialism, anti-Westernism, anti-Imperialism, the struggle to define nationhood… all these things that just weren’t part of the Hebrew literature. So I suppose that was a “political decision.” And then of course in picking the pieces, I could have just focused on the romantic poets of the Arab world, and there are a few in there, Arrar and Adonis.
An anthology is sort of like writing a history, and you know history is all about what you decide to put in and what you decide to leave out.
Guernica: Oh, Adonis. I mean…
Reza Aslan: Did you read “Grave for New York”?
Guernica: Oh my God! I’ve read the whole book! And I had never heard of him. Which is amazing.
Reza Aslan: I really appreciate that because in my world Adonis is like Adonis, a god. Who doesn’t know… it’s like not knowing who T.S. Eliot is! I mean you’ve got to know who Adonis is! Or Ahmad Shamloo, or Farouk Saad, or Mahmoud Darwish, and Nâzim Hikmet. These guys are like GIANTS, I mean GIANTS in global literature. And even well-read Americans would have no reason to be confronted with these guys.
Guernica: These guys come to us through this very cagey world of anthology that has been made by people who have a very different agenda, so that was one of the things that was so amazing to me about this. It re-frames one’s notion about what anthology is. And who gets to be in the anthology.
Reza Aslan: It’s like history, right? I mean the anthology is sort of like writing a history, and in this case I very much see it as sort of a literary history of this time. And you know history is all about what you decide to put in and what you decide to leave out. That was very much a part of this. Now I tried to be very fair about it and the first thing that I did was just collect thousands of pieces. And read them. That’s all I did, is just read read read read. Then I felt as though this overarching narrative was coming along on its own. But there are a number of pieces I could have inserted into the collection that would have veered it one way or another and chose deliberately not to do so. But yeah, you’re right. All anthologizing is by definition a political process, but it’s a political process because it’s the creation of a history, and all history is political.
Guernica: What happens very often in anthologies is we’re given a kind of grocery list of poets, but they aren’t actually in conversation with each other. We have to figure out how they are in conversation with each other. It seems to me, particularly in the way you’ve divided this book up, that everyone keeps calling back to each other and arguing with each other. I’m wondering if you could talk specifically about how you decided to break the book up.
Reza Aslan: I really worked hard to make it seem as though these people are in conversation with each other. So when you hear the piece that starts the book, the Khalil Gibran piece about the revival of the Arabic language—he has this whole diatribe about the difference between a poet and an imitator. Which I just love.
Everyone should read that. A poet does this and an imitator does that. And then…
Guernica: …they should have to read it alongside Plato.
Reza Aslan: And then you get into this next section where you have these Turks very early on, essentially, some of the early stuff especially, kind of doing a little bit of an imitation. And you get to Nâzim Hikmet who has this sort of great line where he says, beginning of this one poem… “I love my country:/I have swung on its plane trees, I have stayed in its prisons.” He starts talking about “My country:/Bedridden, Sinan, Yunus Emre, and Sakarya…” These are all these great kind of Ottoman writers and architects and religious figures and political figures and this idea of the work of their people, and as I explain in the introduction, he’s sort of rewriting Turkish poetry in a way. He’s doing something completely different in the way that Turks usually do poetry. Gone are the sort of flowery ways in which the Ottoman poets would write, imitative of the West. I’m realizing as I’m putting them in some kind of chronological order how strange it is that the things these guys are saying in Egypt is also being said and responded to in India, and somebody in Iran is talking about it. It was for me really kind of an eye opener to see how these works came together so organically without too much effort on my part. I sort of feel my job was, like, you hear sculptors say this all the time, your job, when you’re confronted with a blob of marble is to release the thing that’s inside and all you’ve got to do is cut away all the other stuff and let it come out. That’s exactly how it felt. It felt as though this narrative was already written, these writers, separated by thousands of miles and many, many years were very much not just writing about the same experiences and were talking about these things, were in this bizarre conversation with each other without even knowing it.
Guernica: It really reads like a novel. There’s a manner of interiority that we don’t see in the discussion of the Middle East. But because you move this along in a chronological way, the manner of interiority and intimacy changes as we move forward in this book.
Reza Aslan: From the beginning, what I’m saying is that I wanted to tell the story of the region, but not written through the eyes of outsiders, not written through the eyes of colonialists and conquerors. And not written through the eyes of the historians of the region either, but written through the lens of the poets and writers who were not just artists. This was not a region, or a particular time, especially in the beginning, in the first two sections of it, in which the writer is a disinterested party. Most of these people were in prison. A good number of them were executed by their own government. A huge number of them were at the forefront of the independence movement that ultimately kicked out the colonialists and created what they wanted all along which was their own independent state, and then realized, Oh, this is actually much worse, what we’ve created. In the case of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Pakistani poet who is instrumental in the creation of Pakistan, who’s got three poems in here…
So you read “Freedom’s Dawn (August 1947)” where it’s got so much life and enthusiasm and optimism in there and it’s like, “We finally did it.” And then you read “August 1952” and it’s like, “OK, so there’s a half-promise of the spring” and then by the time you get to “Bury Me Under Your Pavements,” which is written sort of the end of the nineteen fifties, and you get this sense of elation followed by the sudden settling in of reality to just pure, total disappointment of what became of the dream we all fought for. You get that over and over again through no matter where you are. The nationalist writers, the Iranian writers in the second section who wrote so eloquently against the Shah… I’m looking at Reza Baraheni, whose poems were written as he’s being tortured in prison to finally bring down the Shah and what they finally realize is what comes after is just as bad, if not worse because you helped make it happen. And then a sort of strange thing that happens in the third section where those concerns about a strong national identity and the criticism of the state and the anti-Western, anti-imperialism drive that was so much a part of previous generations just somehow don’t matter anymore. But you do get the sense when reading the works from 1980 on that the interiority has shifted. It’s become much more about the “I” and the “self” than about the “we” and the community. It’s not about what kind of society are we going to build; it’s about, what kind of human being am I going to be?
In the Arab world, they just drew lines and said, “You’re a country. There you go.”
Guernica: I’m interested in this notion of the last section being “a borderless collage,” and I wonder, how would you define the way the idea of borders works in this book? Because particularly within this landscape that we’re looking at, the word “border” has so many meanings and is so charged artistically, politically and historically.
Reza Aslan: You’re talking about a region of the world in which, for the most part, borders and boundaries were created by outsiders for the express purpose of divvying up these lands as goods; as spoils of war. That’s the whole point of it. “I’m going to draw a circle around you, congratulations, you’re now Iraq.” Yeah, the people inside that circle have nothing in common with each other. They are different ethnicities, different cultures, different languages, different religions. There is no reason for them to be considered a national entity. Of any sort. Except that this is divvied up to Britain, this is divvied up to France. So borders mean something very real in this book and in this region because part of the problem of the twentieth century is that you’ve now been given this sort of geographic terrain and you’ve been told that you have to identify yourself first and foremost according to that geographic terrain. That for the most part you yourself had nothing to do in creating.
Guernica: It doesn’t mean anything to you, really.
Reza Aslan: In the Arab world, they just drew lines and said, “You’re a country. There you go.” In Turkey that terrain was the Ottoman Empire and all that they could secure as the Second World War was coming to an end. In India it didn’t really matter what the outside borders were because everyone had their small borders. The people in Punjab and the people in Sindh—they didn’t care what the borders of some place that Britain called “India” was, they just cared about the borders of Sindh and Punjab.
Iran is probably the country that has had the most cohesive borders throughout the twentieth century. But even then those borders were repeatedly violated by outside forces: the British, the Russians, and then eventually the Americans. The borders become a sense of limitation for these writers as they are playing with the notion of identity, as they’re trying to figure out what does it mean to be Egyptian and Arab and Muslim and Middle Eastern. What do all of those things mean, how do they fit within each other as I’m trying to figure out using words—how to construct this kind of identity. And each one of those deals with a different kind of border. I think what’s really fascinating about the third section of the book is that the obsession with defining oneself according to borders, whatever those borders means, just sort of goes away, and so suddenly the borders aren’t about these geographic terrains any longer, they are now these internal borders that define these people as individuals and then their role in their smaller societies and then in the larger world. And then of course the book itself, all the proceeds from the book go to this organization called Words Without Borders.
Guernica: Can you talk a little about that organization? That’s also a new realm for the anthology, I mean anthology as a part of social action.
Reza Aslan: It began with a lot of writers and publishers who were great fans of literature in translation, who were cognizant of the fact that this was something really lacking in Americans’ education. A huge part of it started with the OFAC laws, Treasury Department laws that were challenged in a massive lawsuit a few years ago by a number of editors and writers and other people. The OFAC laws say that countries in which there is an embargo or sanctions—that sanction includes literature. So until this successful lawsuit that includes PEN USA and Words Without Borders and a number of other organizations forced a change, if I had written this book I would have been given a ten-million-dollar fine and put in prison for up to ten years because what I’ve done is I’ve taken writings in Iran, which is a sanctioned country, translated those writings, and made them available for English speakers.
You don’t have a political voice, and you don’t have the kind of wealth that allows you to not care, who else is going to do anything except the poets?
Guernica: And it’s another kind of border.
Reza Aslan: If you really think Iran is the enemy, then maybe we ought to read their poets—who also, by the way, hate Iran. And it all happened with Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner who wrote her memoirs in Persian and the Iranian authorities said, “Absolutely not. This cannot be published here.” And so she said “Well, let’s see. I won a Nobel Peace Prize. So I imagine Americans would be interested in this,” and Random House bought the book and bought the rights and translated it and was told by the United States government, “You can all go to jail for publishing this book.” You can go to jail for publishing in English the writings of a person who won a Nobel Peace Prize for challenging a government that we would like to see overturned, who also won’t allow her to publish her own works. That’s where we’ve gotten. So the result of the successful challenge of that law—and we don’t do that anymore, you can read writings from Cuba, you can read writings from Burma—what that allowed an organization like Words Without Borders to do is to hit the ground running and be able to swallow up all of this writing.
Guernica: And I think it also brings attention to the fact that in this country we are one of the only countries, or perhaps the only country where people can say things like, “Politics and poetry,” or “Politics and art have no place.”
Reza Aslan: I think a lot of Americans do have that conception. And so when they read this they’ll think to themselves “Oh, well, you just picked out a bunch of political poems.” Well, there’s actually very few non-political poems. Most of the stuff that’s in here is in here because it’s good… and certainly I could have found a handful of examples of people who were deliberately not writing these kinds of issues, but this is the norm. When you live in societies that for the most part do not allow for either the accumulation of wealth, and you also add the fact that you live in a society in which political participation is either forbidden or not that important to the decisions that are made in the state, you add those two things together. You don’t have a political voice, and you don’t have the kind of wealth that allows you to not care, and… who else is going to do anything except the poets? Who else is actually going to criticize society?
Guernica: I think we’re also at a real intersection right now where we are dealing with the discomfort people have with the fact that there is this borderlessness in terms of how we’re learning about things.
Reza Aslan: Well, a lot of the stuff that was written much later in the two thousands, and especially the stuff written in Iran, is just simply not available. If you’re lucky in Iran you could get past the censors and you could publish a book that maybe a thousand people will read in Iran. So what was remarkable is that a lot of these poets just simply put their poems online. So I was able to find this poetry. The poem that ends the entire book, by Alireza Behnam, “Hanging from the Trees of Babylon”…
Guernica: “At the end/I’ll come down/in my thousand years form…”
Reza Aslan: Nice, right? Both of these poems I found on his website. And he was somebody who had the capability to do this, but he had the Persian and he decided to translate it into English, and he put both on his website that allowed all these other people, including myself, to read it. So about three, four months ago, I get an email from Iran. From Alireza Behnam saying, “I don’t know who you are, but I just got this information saying that my poems are going to be in this English anthology… ” and he was like, “I don’t know what to say, I’m so happy about this, it’s so wonderful.” It was really amazing that he and I were able to have this connection: that here is this guy trying to be a poet in Iran and that from thousands and thousands of miles away I was able to read these poems and pull them out and put them in a book and now thousands of other people are going to be reading it and it’s getting back to him now and he’s thinking “Is there some way I can use this to come to America and share more of my poems,” etc. That’s what we mean by borderless.
This is what I have to constantly remind myself of: That would have been unimaginable ten years ago. How is that possible? Ten years ago that would have been impossible. And yet, this is how easy it is.
Guernica: And that poem ends up in a book where the proceeds are going to an organization where students can go and click online and see a whole world of literature.
Reza Aslan: And where Words Without Borders can now contact Alireza and say, “We want more of your poems. We are going to put them on this website and more and more people are going to start reading who you are.”
So again, I don’t know anything about him. He’s just some young struggling poet, probably in Tehran, who probably has like four jobs and tries his hardest to write verses when he can. And the notion that there is a high school kid in Los Angeles who is going to be reading and studying his poems is phenomenal! If this is not what technology was invented for, then what was it invented for—besides porn?
Guernica: Also what the Internet was invented for.
Reza Aslan: The Internet has two roles: bringing people together, and porn.
Guernica: And that is very interesting to me because it brings up this notion of borders—again, I think we are at a very remarkable and terrifying time in terms of what’s going on in this country. I think we are going to see tomorrow… what is happening. And it seems to me that one cannot ignore the fact that so many students, so many people of the age that we teach have a notion of borders in this world that is really changing—they’re on Twitter, they’re on Facebook.
Reza Aslan: I mean the truth is that there is a kid in Los Angeles right now that has more in common with a kid in Indonesia because they like the same music and the same movies, than either of them have in common with their own communities. So the very concept of society has shifted. This is one thing that I never get tired of talking about, that from the dawn of humanity the definition of society and community was geographically defined. Community means, who is around me; who’s next to me? That’s my community. Until twenty years ago. From when we started walking upright to about twenty years ago, that’s what society meant. And it doesn’t mean that anymore.
And we have to be prepared for it and I firmly believe technology is important, but it’s going to be the arts that is really going to be important.
Guernica: We are at a remarkable moment in terms of the imagination of a whole generation. They are re-imagining not just their borders, but who they are in the world, what a name means, all of that.
Reza Aslan: How to define oneself. I mean you are being told in very significant parts of your life: “Fill out this form that tells us about you.” Who do you see yourself as being? Write it down: What’s your political view, what’s your religious view, what’s your sexual orientation, what’s your gender, what’re your interests and hobbies. And these are things that in our generation we always had in the back of our minds… that’s how we made our friends, right? You’re my friend because we like the same music; you’re my friend because we’re the same politically. But I don’t ever remember having to define these things in print when I was a kid—constantly… constantly.
Guernica: Who are you? Who is your friend?
Reza Aslan: Who are you? Who is your friend? What do you like? How do you feel? What do you think about these issues?
Guernica: Every ten seconds what do you think about it…
Reza Aslan: Every ten seconds, exactly! So you’re right. I say this in Beyond Fundamentalism: What we have to understand is that what globalization has done is it hasn’t changed the world, you know, Tom Friedman is wrong. The world isn’t flat. It’s our minds that have flattened. We are the ones who have changed. The world is exactly how it used to be, but our conception of it, the way we define our relationship to it—that is what has changed. And it’s truly remarkable. We’re immersed in it. And especially our generation because I just had my twentieth high school reunion…
The Internet has even more fractured people, it’s become the ultimate sounding board, you never ever have to be confronted by any opposing views for the rest of your life.
Guernica: I’m about to have mine…
Reza Aslan: We were talking about this and it occurred to us that when we were in high school we didn’t have email. I completely forgot about this. We didn’t have email, and we didn’t have cell phones. So we were all sitting there, suddenly remembering that in order (because I had a very tight-knit group of friends in high school) to get in touch with each other we would have to call our parents. And we’d have to say, “Is Reza home?” I don’t remember it. As far as I know I’ve always had email and I’ve always had a cell phone. But to be confronted by that change is to become aware that we are living through this catastrophic global transformation.
Guernica: I’m struck by the fact that also meant we didn’t have computers. You used the word “reformation” in No god but God. It seems to me that we are in the midst of a really global reformation and we are feeling those kinds of growing pains right now. Would you say that?
Reza Aslan: Yes. Not just because communities are changing but because authority is changing. The idea that authority can come from anonymous sources; that anyone with an IP address and some information can now be an authority on a subject, and whose influence can go beyond just their own communities, they can have global influence. Whether that’s someone like Osama bin Laden who’s, as I say, a child of globalization, he is the poster child for this idea of reformation. Here is this guy without any kind of religious instruction, without any kind of training at all who at first was just audio tapes and now has an IP address and has become this global source of emulation and authority. Who speaks with a kind of authority that it would take a cleric of Islam twenty years to accumulate. And he does so because he has an email account. That’s amazing! It’s phenomenal! So it is a global transformation, it really is. My very good friend Eli Pariser—he’s writing a book, he created MoveOn. He’s writing this really fascinating book—and this part is not all that unique because it’s something that most tech people would say, is that when we were younger and the Internet was coming along, the excitement was that this would be a truly democratizing thing, this was going to be the technology that not just changed the way we communicate and the way we identify with each other, but it was going to democratize understanding, it was going to create so much access that knowledge would become second-hand. Everything you want to know is now available to you. And what we found over the last half-decade is the exact opposite has happened. What the Internet has done is it’s even more fractured people, it’s become the ultimate sounding board, you never ever have to be confronted by any opposing views for the rest of your life anymore. You have access to just the kind of stuff you want to hear and nothing else. So it’s been kind of a destructive force in that regard. So there is good and bad to it, but I do think that you’re right: the way that we think about authority, the way that we think about identity, the way that we think about our place in the world and our connection to each other, and the very definition of community… these are global changes. I use the word “catastrophic” for a reason. I don’t mean that in a negative or positive way, I mean it’s a cataclysm. And we have no idea what’s going to come out of this. But it is sort of exciting to be at the front lines of it, to be sort of the transitional generation in a way.
Guernica: We’re at a time that is very similar to the printing press being invented. I think about this all the time with my students: For a long time I would get on them, I mean, I still get on them in their essays about punctuation, but there are things students are doing with language right now that I was really upset about for a long time and then I thought, “But is it possible we are at a moment when a new language is being created?” And that is terrifying.
Reza Aslan: I always love, if you ever read Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, he essentially created spelling. Before that you spelled things however you wanted to spell it, phonetically. And then Johnson wrote a dictionary and then that’s how it’s spelled, forever, all of a sudden. So I wonder if we’re sort of in a similar place like that where if I see text-speak or something, I won’t poke my eyes out with a hot iron, but then I think, Jesus, is this how everyone is going to be writing in a hundred years? And is there anything to be done about that or is it just the evolution of language?
Guernica: And I’m also beginning to understand it. I used to get a text from someone and I’d have no idea what’s being said. But now I am beginning to understand the language. And that’s fascinating how at some point it goes beyond my choice even (if that makes sense).
Reza Aslan: But, there will always be people like you and me to complain about this.
Guernica: Is No god but God being made into a young-adult book?
Reza Aslan: Yeah, I just got the galleys. It comes out in February.
Guernica: Was it your decision to do it or were you approached to do it?
Reza Aslan: I was approached by Delacorte, which is an imprint of Random House (as is most everyone). They said, what would you think about this, and I said, alright, let’s do this and so it’s kind of been a cool experience putting it together and working with them. We were talking about whether we should change the title and one idea was how about “No god, but like God.” But it was really wonderful, kind of a cool experience to see that and I’m curious to see what the result will be. I’ve spoken at a number of high schools in which they teach No god but God, which I’ve always thought to myself, wow, this is not a book for high school kids. I guess if you’ve got a teacher who’s working you through it. So I always thought that something like this should exist, but yeah, it’s great that it does.
Guernica: It seems to be a part of this next chapter of yours.
Reza Aslan: Yeah, and now we’re working on a second edition of the book to come out in time for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 so that’ll be much more expanded and stuff and then I really, really got to get going on this other book that I’ve…
Guernica: This morning was the first time I looked up Reza Aslan on Wikipedia and there was this thing about a novel.
Reza Aslan: I’ve always thought of myself as a novelist. In fact the reason that I found my agent was because I had written a novel. And in our discussions when we talked about, what else do you envision doing, what else have you got… and I said well, I want to write fiction and non-fiction. What are your non-fiction ideas? I said, well I got this idea about a book about Islam that I want to write and she’s like “What?” This was like 2003, right? So it was like, “What now, Islam?” So we put that novel aside and worked on this book proposal and the rest is history. At that point I had tossed that novel. I have a firm belief in the practice novel. And my thesis at Iowa was this other, this historical novel that I had been working on for a while and we went to Random House and said, “Well, this is what I’ve got now and this is what I’d like to do,” and they said “Yeah, how about another book exactly like No god but God.” I was like “No, I really want to write a novel.”
And they were like “How about we help you buy a house,” and I said, “OK.” That’s not what they said, but basically they made me an offer and I was like, “Oh, yeah. Let’s do that.” Then when we went back for the third book, we said, OK now is the time, we all talked about this, right? And they were like yeah, yeah, that’s sweet, how about another non-fiction book? And I was like, I’ve got a non-fiction book and I really want to write it, but the only way that I’ll sell it to you is if I see a contract that says, “This is a two-book deal, and whatever, eighteen, twenty-four months after the first book comes out, you will publish the novel. We will not have this conversation a third time.” And they did, so that was sort of nice, but now I’ve got to do this other book first, which is a biography of Jesus which I’ve been working on for a while.
Guernica: But then the novel.
Reza Aslan: But then the novel.
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Photograph courtesy Reza Aslan